Feighan: ‘Non-lawn’ lawn, a growing concept

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

I knew my attempt at lawn care was a complete failure this year when I saw the dandelions sprout — for the second time.

My husband and I started the year, as we always do, with good intentions. I insisted we fertilize the lawn at least once this spring and we did, but not before those pesky dandelions had already made an appearance.

By the time summer was in full swing, sprawling, bulky weeds in all shapes and sizes had pretty much taken over, leaving dead grass in their wake. Every day, I tried to pluck them, even putting quotas in place. “I’ll pull 10 a day!” I vowed. But it was like pulling out gray hairs after 40. I was hopelessly outnumbered.

It’s a suburban ideal to create the “perfect” lawn. Something about a lush, green, thick, weed-less lawn says we’ve arrived. It’s a symbol of status and attentiveness.

I had a neighbor years ago who trimmed her front lawn’s perimeter with garden sheers — by hand. She was so attentive to her grass that when our dog urinated on her side lawn just outside our back door, creating a small yellow patch, she asked that we replace it with sod. We did. We didn’t want to mess with perfection.

No wonder why University of Michigan’s Stanton Jones’ notion of a “non-lawn” — with less grass — sounds so bold.

Jones is an associate professor of landscape architecture. He recently worked with a group of Michigan students on designing the backyard for HGTV’s “Urban Oasis” in Ann Arbor, a 1,500-square-foot Craftsman-style bungalow the network is giving away in its latest sweepstakes contest. The contest started Tuesday.

The “Urban Oasis” backyard is notable not just for its plants, many of them native to Michigan and good for pollinators, but for the conscious decision to create less lawn. There are garden beds for farm-to-table plants and a sloping bioswale that helps handle the property’s stormwater.

“It takes water from all over the pavement, all of the water comes down in,” said Jones. “Underneath the far back corner is large water storage reservoir, underneath the ground. Most of the stormwater will be on-site and actually infiltrate down into the ground so we aren’t contributing to increased stormwater flows.”

In designing the backyard, Jones said, his students worked to reduce the size of the lawn — yes, reduce — “to a size that would be usable.”

“If you’re going to have lawn you want to make sure it’s there for good reason,” Jones said.

The reality is grass lawns — and our obsession with them — are a newer concept in the big scheme of things. The first mechanical lawnmower wasn’t invented until 1830 and they weren’t mass produced until 1890, according to the Lawn Institute. Designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, is often credited with sparking the migration of turfgrass lawns to the homes of regular North Americans after he designed a housing development in Chicago with individual lawns.

But maybe its time to rethink our lawn obsession, especially as fertilizers affect our lakes and streams. Jones advocates for creating more usable lawns, focusing more on “non-lawn” elements such as plants.

“It’s really not ‘non-lawn,’ it’s focusing on usable lawn — making sure its the plant of choice,” Jones said.

My husband and I have a long way to go in re-thinking our lawn. But I do know one plant I don’t want: dandelions.


Twitter: @mfeighan